June 9, 2012
Million Dollar Mermaid, 1952. Director: Mervyn LeRoy; Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.; Choreographer: Busby Berkeley, with Esther Williams (Annette Kellerman), Victor Mature (James Sullivan), Walter Pidgeon (Frederick Kellerman), David Brian (Alfred Harper), Donna Corcoran (Annette – 10 year old), Jesse White (Doc Cronnol), Maria Tallchief (Pavlova), Howard Freeman (Aldrich), Charles Watts (Policeman).
113 people in the cast! I counted.
- Up until just before it was released, Million Dollar Mermaid had been called One Piece Bathing Suit.
- The producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr. was married to Myrna Loy in the late 30s and early 40s. He was a sharp dresser, a former lawyer with an Ivy League education who fell into show business aftrer WWI. Behind a dignified exterior, he was a tough producer with an eye for the box office who had brought to the screen films as diverse as Ruggles of Red Gap, Gaslight, and The Asphalt Jungle.
- The director was Mervyn LeRoy. He and his wife Kitty were part of the Hollywood “aristocracy”. LeRoy’s background was as rough and tumble as Hornblow’s was genteel. A school dropout at the age of 12, he earned his living as a singing newsboy and graduated to doing Chaplin imitations in vaudeville. LeRoy learned the movie business from the ground up, coming to Hollywood when he was still in his teens and becoming a jack-of-all-trades, working in the wardrobe department and the lab, and as a cameraman, screenwriter, and actor. He started directing after 1930. He directed Little Caesar, the original gangster movie that launched both a film genre and the career of Edward G. Robinson. It was LeRoy who rechristened Julia Jean Turner as Lana when she was just 15 and gave her her first role in They Won’t Forget. Whe he left Warner’s for MGM, he brought Lana with him. In the mid-thirties he began producing as well as directing, and in 1939 he solidified his already prestigious reputation by producing The Wizard of Oz. Between LeRoy and Hornblow, Esther Williams felt as though she was being graced by the Hollywood Royal Family. One didn’t fool around with people of their stature.
- LeRoy, Hornblow and Williams met to talk about the film. LeRoy filled her in on the original story of the movie’s main character, Annette Kellerman, an Australian who had been a champion long-distance swimmer at the turn of the century. She’d had polio as a young girl and began swimming to regain the strength in her legs. Swimming competitively in distance events, Kellerman pioneered the wearing of masculine style swimwear for women, rather like a sleeveless wet suit or unitard. This was revolutionary, since “proper” ladies at the beach in her era still covered up from head to toe, decked out in ruffles and bows, and swam in them, sometimes even in shoes and stockings. Good sinking apparel! While preparing for a long swim, Kellerman was arrested on a beach one day near Boston and charged with indecent exposure. The racing suit exposed her arms and legs, which in Massachusetts back then was deemed nearly as lewd as going topless. After a highly publicized trial (Kellerman was acquitted), she put together a swimming and diving act and began working summer carnivals in the East, clad in her infamous one-piece swimsuit, but now with stockings attached to avoid being “indecent.” She became the first professional woman swimmer. Her shows were increasingly popular, and eventually she became the star attraction at the Hippodrome Theater in New York. Finally she came to California and made movies in the earliest days of Hollywood, before she retired to become a wife, mother and owner of a health food store in the Pacific Palisades.
- Horblow showed Williams several old photoglraphs of Kellerman. One really grabbed her and she wished she could meet her. When Kellerman visited California, in the early 1920’s, they had strung a tightrope between the bluffs of the Palisades, the beach, and the Santa Monica pier. The photo showed her with her parasol, balancing above what is now Pacific Coast Highway. Shades of Pearl White (The Perils of Pauline)! Williams thought that this was a woman whose career foreshadowed her own; who started out as a champion swimmer but ended up in the movies on a high wire.
- Victor Mature co-starred opposite Esther as Annette’s lover, carnival hustler Jimmy Sullivan. Mature ws a big man; he had a great swagger and well-developed pectorals. How he maintained his muscular physique, given his peculiar diet, is a mystery. He could and would eat anything. He would knock on Esther’s dressing room door at the end of a day and ask her if she had any ketchup. Then he’d put it on a piece of cardboard and eat it, like an hors d’oeuvre.
- Like Robert Mitchum, Mature was one of Howard Hughes’s hard-drinking buddies. Victor called Hughes “The Phantom,” because no one knew when he’d shoe up on the lot. Working on a scene, Victor would suddenly catch a glimpse of Hughes out of the corner of his eye. Hughes would stay on the set for a while, but never spoke to anybody. Then he’d disappear as quietly as he’d arrived, like a skinny ghost.
- Victor Mature also had a strange affliction. Having a lot of lines to deliver often made him anxious, and his hands and feet would swell up. He was a large enough man to begin with, but when all the blood in his budy rushed to his extremities, they became huge. He had to take off his shoes because they hurt so much, and of course the swelling made it very hard to film him.
Williams recalls: “When shooting began, Vic was rather aggressive about what he thought the personal payoof should be for being my leading man. This is not unusual in Hollywood. Attraction between actors working on a movie are inevitable. You’re portraying strong emotions, many of them sexual if not romantic, and you’re thrown together all day, every day, for as many as forty or fifty days. Parnering in a film is very much like a marriage—infact, you spend more time with your leading man than you do with your spouse. I felt a powerful attraction to Victor. I was married, but all the passion and most of the love in that marriage were gone, or going. Vic, I knew, was entangled in a similar marriage. Still, I had been raised with conventional values in which I believed at the time, and in which, for the most part, I still believe. So I tried to stay away from Vic. But he was my first leading man who really lived up to the title, and it’s hard to stay away from a charismatic guy who’s constantly whispering, ‘You’re fantastic. I love you.’ On the set and off. It might look better, here if I said that Victor seduced me, or that I didn’t know what I was doing until it was too late, or that he battered down the gates and conquered the city. Nothing of the sort. I knew that he wanted me, and I wanted him. We were on equal terms. We didn’t have to lay games any more. One night, after doing a steamy love scene that was more than adequate foreplay, we went to my dressing room, locked the door, and unleashed our hunger, our passion for each other. Vic was a strong and fulfilling lover. Even better than I had fantasized. That first night, we made love over and over and into exhaustion. He adored the romance of it, too, offering me a surprisingly vulnerable and gentle side that was irresistible.”
- Million Dollar Mermaid was planned to be an extraordinary experience, on and off the screen. For the first time in a Williams film, swimming was really part of the story and didn’t have to be shoehorned into the rest of the plot. Williams loved the idea of playing Annette Kellerman, a real person. It was a good script (even Deborah Kerr would agree) and she knew she’d have some challenging scenes to play. With Walter Pidgeon playing her father, and Mature as Jimmy Sullivan, she had actors of substance playing opposite her. In addition to being lovers, Victor and Esther became friends, and he made the filmmaking process more exciting than it had ever been.
- Because of the historical basis to the film, the set designer had taken care to recreate the original Hippodrome, which had been the jewel in the crown of the vaudeville circuit.
- One day as they were getting ready to shoot a scene, Arthur Hornblow escorted an older woman onto the set and he introduced Annette Kellerman to Esther Williams. Although she was 65, there wasn’t a wrinkle on her face. She was wearing a scarf with a hat and visor, and what she’d done was pull her face into her hat. (Remember that trick, ladies! Sounds easy as pie.) Annette Kellerman looked around the set and nodded her approval of the accuracy of what the backstage of the Hippodrome was like. They posed for pictures and Williams asked her how she felt about her playing Kellerman’s life. At first Annette didn’t answer but then she responded that she had wished an Australian actor could have played her. Williams responded that since she was the only swimmer in the movie business, she’s who she got. That was their only meeting.
- Esther Williams: “I had been looking forward to having Mervyn LeRoy’s expertise behind the camera. Because of the movies he’d done before, such as Random Harvest and Waterloo Bridge, I had expected great insight and sensitivity, especially in dealing with the romantic part of the story line. It didn’t happen. He wasn’t the perceptive director I thought he would be. There’s one dramatic sequence near the end of the movie where the glass wall of a diving tank shatters, and my back is broken as I’m pushed through the jagged opening in a surge of water and broken glass. A we got ready to shoot, all Mervyn said was ‘Let’s have a nice little scene.’ A nice little scene? I had no idea how that “direction” was supposed to help me play the scene, but the truth is that was all the direction Mervyn ever gave me. It didn’t matter whether we were doing a love scene, a fight, or an action sequence, he’d always say the same thing—‘Let’s have a nice little scen.’ Eventually I realized that he simply was tired, or more likely burned out. He had just directed Quo Vadis?, a troubled marathon costume epic with the proverbial cast of thousands, shot in Rome over the better part of a year. The film was successful, but it drained him; and I suspect that was shy he wanted to do my movie. Mervyn knew we had a formula, and that we had a team of professionals who understood the art and science of making swimming movies. The fact that we knew what we were doing gave him license to sit back in his director’s chair and talk about having ‘nice little scenes.’”
- “He realized that I’d figured it out, too, and so he tried to make it up to me. In the last scene of the film, I’m lying in the hospital, severely injured from when the tank shattered. Getting ready for the scene he told me, ‘This is a love scene. Jimmy comes back and he’s found you at last. I’m going to do something for you. I’m going to put black flaps all around, so the crew doesn’t distract you.’ ‘The crew doesn’t distract me, Mervyn. I don’t want some black things around. I’m used to it. It’s okay.’ ‘No, Esther, I insist. I’m going to give you the same respect I would give Vivien Leigh or Greer Garson.’ Obviously this mattered to him, so I said, ‘Well if it makes you happy, Mervyn, go ahead.’ Somehow these kinds of situations never seemed to be about me; it was always bout them and what they wanted. But there was another masculine ego to be dealt with. When Victor Mature arrived to do the scene, he promptly blew a gasket. ‘What the hell is this? Who put all this black crap up around everything? I can’t breathe in here!’ ‘Vic,’ I said, hoping his hands didn’t start to swell up again, ‘we have to humour Mervyn. This is what he did with Greer Garson. I have t cry, so he figures I won’t want anybody to see me do that.’ Victor was in no mood to humour anyone, least of all Mervyn. All those black cotton drapes that were giving him allergic fits came down. Mervyn, without missing a beat, leaned over to Vic, and in his usual confidential whisper, said, ‘Alright now, let’s have a nice little scene.’ Vic and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh, because we knew we had to cry.”
- Stage 30 was used for all of the swim scenes in William’s films. Today, there’s a little placard that identifies it as THE ESTHER WILLIAMS STAGE, but back then they called it “Pneumonia Alley.” The water always had to be warm for the swimmers, but hot air rises, and the crew up in the scaffolding above the stage were always complaining about the heat waves, the humidity, and chlorine fumes, which sometimes made them lightheaded or nauseous. Occasionally, one of the crew would pass out and fall into the water. To compensate, the air temperature of the soundstage was kept at 60 degrees, so the crew in the rigging wouldn’t get the vapors. This meant that the swimmers all caught colds, because they were coming out of the 85 to 90 degree water into the arctic air. Williams’ solution was to never get out of the pool. Shed just stay in there all day long.
- Williams even took naps that way. She’d hook her heels on the coping, take short, quick breaths to keep herself afloat and just drop off to sleep. Lungs are like pontoons, and she was able to program herself to take little sips of air while sleeping. She found that if she leaned back and put her hands under her neck, the water wouldn’t wake her up by leaking into her ears. People who came looking for her were told to look for a floating person asleep in the pool.
- Staying in the pool for great lengths of time had its dangers, not on the surface, but below it. When they were shooting an underwater number, they followed a storyboard and each segment of the number was timed. Through the window the crew held up index cards for Esther that said how long the segment was: 45 SECONDS UNDERWATER was pretty typical, but what was meant was 45 seconds of actual filming. She spent a lot more time underwater than that. What she had to do was get down, get set, make sure she was on her mark in front of the underwater window, match her position to the previous shot, and then do whatever it was that they wanted her to do for the camera. And after that she had to shoot back up to the top again. Eventually she began to put those “45 Seconds” cards together, combining the storyboard takes to make the action more fluid and to save time. As the day wore on, her lungs would expand and she could stay down longer and longer. Whatever she could do at 9:00 a.m., she could do double that by 4:00 p.m.
- On one particular shot she was going feet first into a big scallop shell on the bottom of the pool that opened to reveal a huge pearl inside. She went down to the deepest level and swam around the pearl. She knew from the storyboard that she was supposed to go around the pearl one more time, but instead she lay her head on it, like a pillow and went into a trance. Her eyes glazed over and she didn’t know where up or down was, nor did she care. This felling is something like “the rapture” experienced by scuba divers. It’s a very dangerous dreamlike state caused by excess carbon dioxide in the body, and when it takes over, all one wants to do is go to sleep even as the oxygen is running out. LeRoy was directing this “nice little scene” from the chamber in front of the underwater window. He didn’t know he was watching his star drowning, but he knew that this shot didn’t call for her to fall asleep. The pool had an underwater speaker and suddenly she heard him calling her name. “Esther! Esther!! Get your head off that pearl! It’s just been painted and the paint may come off. Get off it!” She began to try to find his voice, but was still dazed. “Esther, what the hell are you doing? Get off the pearl!” She thought she already had. Mervyn’s insistent voice started to bring her out of her stupor, and it saved her life. She never did that napping thing again.
- The script for Million Dollar Mermaid included two water extravaganza scenes and Esther pleaded with LeRoy to bring in Busby Berkeley to stage them, because she knew he’d bring a real sense of showmanship to the film. Mervyn knew it was better than trying to stage them himself and finally said yes. Busby was a drinker, but not at work. On the set he was as wonderfully creative as ever. Before they did a take, he would gather everyone around him and chalk-talk his way through the scene. He stood in front of his blackboard and told each of the actors what their assignments were. Then they would shoot the scene. Busby didn’t give much thought to Esther’s safety. He just expected her to do whatever he dreamed up. Because she was the star, he said she had to do it better than anyone else. As a result, she risked her life every time he said “Roll ‘em.” For the recreation of the water extravaganza at the New York Hippodrome, Busby pulled out all the stops. He suspended trapezes over the pool from which divers plunged into the water. Esther had her own trapeze which was held in place by a pin at the very top of the soundstage until it was time for her to wing. She felt like a parrot holding onto a perch, except that she was horizontal way up high, just under the ceiling of the stage. Face down, 50 feet above the pool, she gripped that trapeze so hard with her feet, she broke a toe! To signal everyone so they’d know when to dive in, Busby fired off a pistol. Pinned to the ceiling like that, the sound of gunshots echoing through the soundstage rattled the hell out of her. They had a couple of rehearsals. Mostly they were for the crew snapping the release pin, so they’d know which gunshot was theirs. When they let loose, she was to swing forward over the pool, then back again. On the second swing, Busby would fire again, which was her cue to dive in. What Busby had neglected to tell her was that he had rigged up 400 electrically controlled smudge pots on both sides of the pool. As the chorus members dove in, the pots began to discharge thick, gorgeous plumes of red and yellow smoke 50 feet into the air. All of a sudden this smoke was billowing up, and soon it was so thick that Esther couldn’t see through it, but he wanted her to swing through this surrealistic universe of Technicolor smoke. It was typical of Busby that he never mentioned the smoke. He just assumed it was a production detail that she didn’t need to be concerned about. On the second great swing across the pool, Esther was to do a half gainer off the trapeze, but she couldn’t see the pool below. She was afraid she was going to dive headfirst into the cement. Esther was nearsighted, which didn’t help. “I don’t see any blue down there Buzz. What’s with all this smoke?” Esther called out. Busby was up on a crane, armed with a bullhorn. “What’s your problem, Williams? You know where the water is, You already looked. Just don’t dive in crooked.” Then he fired off one round from the pistol and the crew snapped her pin. Down she swept like a circus aerialist, across the pool and back, smiling as if it were a backyard swing. As she came forward again, Busby shot off another round and she did her half gainer through the billowing smoke, praying that she would hit warm water instead of cold cement. It was over in a matter of seconds. She sank deep into the pool and felt the incredible safety of being underwater. As she pushed her way to the surface, Busby called, “Print it!” And Esther knew she wouldn’t have to do it again. Years later, fans would tell her it was their favourite scene in all of her movies. It wasn’t hers! That dive into swirling smoke cost her only a broken toe. She wasn’t so lucky on the next stunt, which almost killed her!
- Designers Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett fitted her in an extraordinary swim costume—much like a diver’s body suit, only covered, including the soles of the feet, with gold sequins, 50,000 of them—like chain mail. Atop a gold turban, which was wrapped around her head, they perched a gold crown. And it was the crown that held the danger. In the middle of the pool, there was a hydraulic lift. Busby had fitted it with a Lucite disk, a platform just big enough for her to stand on. A slender pipe on the platform steadied her as it rose in the air, with a fountain of water cascading all around her. When the lift took her 50 feet above the pool, she was to do a swan dive into the water below. She took her position on the disk and the hydraulic lift started rising. Upwards away from the pool, the crew dropping away. The lift finally jolted to a stop. Esther was perched on the height of a 6-story rooftop. Acrophobia and dizziness! Her equilibrium was gone because her inner ear, which had been damaged, had never fully recovered from the seven broken eardrums she’d suffered through years of living underwater. She suddenly couldn’t tell if she was leaning or standing straight and her mind and body froze. Busby wondered what she was waiting for and told her to jump. She forced a smile for the camera and swan-dived from the tiny platform. Hurtling down, she muttered a silent, “Oh, shit,” as she suddenly realized what was going to happen next. The gold crown on her head, instead of being made with something pliable like cardboard, was lightweight aluminum, a lot stronger and less flexible than her neck! She hit the water with tremendous force and the impact snapped her head back. She heard something pop in her neck and knew instantly that she was in big trouble! Totally unaware, LeRoy called out, “Great, time for lunch.” Immediately everyone tropped across the soundstage and within seconds vanished. Only Flossie Hackett, Esther’s wardrobe lady, remained, and only because it was her job to get my costume off for the later shooting. Esther could kick her legs, so she desperately dreaded water, but her arms and shoulders were virtually paralyzed! The back of her neck was in screaming pain. Esther called to Flossie to get her some help. At first Flossie thought she was joking. Finally she believed her and ran to the big soundstage door and shouted, “I think Esther Williams is dead. She can’t get out of the pool.” Some men came running in, quickly stripped off their shoes and shirts, and jumped in to pull her out. She was crying by that time, because the pain was so intense. They carried her to her dressing room. While they were waiting for the ambulance, Flossie carefully removed her gold fishnet bodysuit, rolling it down her body like pantyhose, and those 50,000tiny metal sequins were like little knives, nicking and cutting. Flossie was supposed to keep Esther’s costumes in good repair, so the absurdity of peeling off the suit instead of swiftly cutting it off, didn’t seem to cross her mind!
- At the hospital, Esther blacked out from the pain. The X-rays showed that she had broken three vertebrae in the back of her neck. She’d come as close to snapping her spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as one could without actually succeeding. The doctor gave Esther a shot for the pain, then put her head in a brace to stabilize it. He put the rest of her in a fully body cast, from the back of her neck all the way to her knees. Her arms were encased down to her elbows; he left her lower arms free so once she regained movement, she could feed herself. As she began to come out of the painkillers, she realized that no one at the studio was aware that she’d been injured. For all she knew, LeRoy and Busby were still wearing at her for not reporting to the set after lunch. She told Flossie to take her back to the studio and show them what happens when everyone is in such a hurry for lunch! She didn’t have to stay in the hospital as her body armour was her hospital. While she was out of commission they had to shoot around her. They couldn’t replace her because too much of the film had already been done, including most of the big numbers. Besides, there were no other Hollywood swimming movie stars. The fact that they had to wait for Esther was, in its way, quite a compliment to her as well as a comfort.
- Busby visited her at home. He was very sweet and wished Esther a speedy recovery, but it wasn’t long before her cast was not just a hospital, but a jail as well. Imprisoned in plaster of Paris, she got down on herself a little. She had time to think about what happened, and realized that this near-death experience was partly her own fault. She felt the metal crown was not something that a costume designer would have known to take into consideration. She didn’t think it out in advance and she felt that she was the only one who would understand something like that. She lived in the cast for six months. With youth and good conditioning on her side, she healed, but those three broken vertebrae fused together. She had headaches for a long time afterward and still did years later. Whenever she got stressed out, she’d get a headache from the solid piece of bone that she grew in the back of her neck. Many years later she saw what happened to Christopher Reeve…
- After the cast was removed, Esther went back and finished the movie. Although she and Mature remained friends, they were no longer lovers. He had been exceptionally sweet during her convalescence, and she didn’t think their affair would last past the making of the movie. She felt she knew that she was just one more in his long list of conquests, but didn’t regret it for a minute. Esther advice is that romances with beautiful leading men don’t last forever, but don’t knock it until you’ve had one!
- Esther’s six-month hiatus was not long enough to restore Mervyn’s zest for directing; he was still calling for “nice little scenes” right to the end. As they were wrapping the picture, she confronted him about it—nicely. She really did like him, even if he didn’t really direct his actors and asked him why he took this project. “Frankly, Esther, I needed a hit, a top grosser,” he said. At least it was an honest answer.
- As it turned out, that’s what it became. Million Dollar Mermaid opened on December 5, 1952, as the holiday attraction at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. It played there for eight weeks and with lines around the block spilling into the side streets as people waited in the snow for tickets. In January of 1953, while Million Dollar Mermaid was still doing big box office, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted Esther the number one female movie star in 50 countries. For that she was awared the “Henrietta” statue, today what is called the Golden Globe.
The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl
Dangerous Curves, 1929. Director: Lothar Mendes with Clara Bow (Pat Delaney), Richard Arlen (Larry Lee), Kay Francis (Zara Flynn), David Newell (Tony Barretti), Anders Randolf (Colonel P.P. Brack), May Boley (Ma Spinelli).
Saving money seemed more important than ever, for Clara’s career no longer depended on her quantity of “It,” but on the quality of her material. Fortunately Ernst Lubtisch, the director who had cast her in Kiss Me Again four years earlier, had been made production supervisor of her latest movie. When Lubitsch read the script for 1929’s “Summer Bow,” a pallid “It” Girl-goes-to-the-circus story called Pink Tights, he ordered it recast, rewritten, and reassigned to protégé Lothar Mendes, whom Lubitsch felt understood Clara’s untapped potential.
He was right. Also set under the big top, Dangerous Curves boasted a serviceable plot, snappy dialogue, and a role for Clara modeled on herself, not her image. Beneath her wisecracking bravado, bareback rider Patricia Delaney seems wracked by sorrow, and although she’s a grown and very beautiful woman, Pat is nonetheless portrayed as a lonely little girl whom the other characters call “Kid.” It as a radical departure from Clara’s usual roles, and though “It” is not in evidence in Dangerous Curves, a more subdued and haunting quality is.
Sixty years later, the progress from The Wild Party to Dangerous Curves appears so vast that it is difficult to believe the two movies were shot within a month of each other. Clara’s first talkie (The Wild Party) remains a primitive production with lethargic pacing and stilted dialogue, while her second is visually inventive, briskly paced, and loaded with appropriate, atmospheric lingo. “Those two bimbos ain’t so dusty,” observes one small-town sheik of Pat and a fellow bareback rider. “Get back in line, ya overgrown, half-baked, sawed off ignoramus,” snaps Pat in a single breath when a rival rider hogs the spotlight.
Lines like these would sound strange without a streetwise accent, and Dangerous Curves allows Clara’s to work to her advantage. By contrast, the vocal impediment of cast member Kay Francis (“wavishing Kay Fwancis,” a critic once called her) wreaks comic havoc on her love scenes. Clara suffers no such hindrance. When Pat Delaney serves “cawfee” to the “meeahn” she adores, Clara is pronouncing her words as her character would. Freed from the pressure of perfect diction, her performance is charming, moving, and unmannered.
There were still serious problems. The mike overhead loomed like an enemy, and in take after take Clara would involuntarily stare at it in terror. She had always prided herself on her professionalism, so when her mike fright delayed Dangerous Curves’ production, her confidence was undermined to the point where, during the shooting of one especially talky scene, Clara could endure no more. Frustrated and ashamed of her mistakes, she swore violently at the mike, then burst into tears and sank to the ground, sobbing and whimpering. Lothar Mendes summoned Lubitsch, who rushed to the set, calmed Clara, and ordered witnesses to keep silent. Though word of the incident never reached the press, details spread throughout the studio and fuelled rumours that Clara could not cope with sound technology.
Ironically, review of Dangerous Curves hailed her bright future in talkies. “New chapter in the Clara Bow career promises well,” reported Variety. “Fans had begun to tire of this star in the flaming sex appeal role, but renewed interest greets this experiment of casting her in a sympathetic role of sentimental force.” Once again, Ernst Lubitsch had come to Clara’s rescue, this time by giving her the chance to show how well-suited her voice and accent were to a truer-to-life character than “the ‘It’ Girl” of her formula films.
Having encouraged Lubtisch to change Clara’s image, Paramount now proceeded to thwart his effort. That year the studio released sixty-one movies, more than one a week. Dangerous Curves disappeared in the glut. Good reviews and great grosses (Clara’s second talkie played to sellout crowds) did not matter; before favourable word-of-mouth could travel, Paramount had yanked Dangerous Curves from distribution.
Clara Bow Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn, 1988
For her first film on the west coast, Kay was co-starred with Paramount’s top female attraction, Clara Bow, in a 1929 release titled Dangerous Curves. Kay was pleased with her role in Dangerous Curves, as it allowed her to act out her childhood fantasy of being a trapeze artist. Kind-hearted, hoydenish Clara helped the dignified-looking newcomer by suggesting that the studio change Katharine, as the actress had been billed, to Kay, which would fit marquees better. Just before their first scene together, Clara counselled: “Now look, Kay, I’m the star, so naturally they train the camera on me. But if you cheat a little, you’ll get in it just right too. You’ve got to keep that face in the camera, darling.” It must have worked. Many felt that Kay’s alluring Zara stole the picture. Bow, who had been a top star in the silent films, had difficulty facing the mikes. Bow’s biographer, David Stenn, wrote about her trauma on the set of Dangerous Curves. (See red print above.) For all her advice to Kay, Bow seems uneasy in her part. Her performance is filled with nervous pauses and girlish gestures. Still, Bow had her fans, and at this point her films made tremendous profits for Paramount. Her fear of the mike would eventually prove her undoing.
Dangerous Curves, originally titled Pink Tights, was the first of five outings for Kay and director Lothar Mendes. Billed third, she sauntered around in aerial gear while two-timing Richard Arlen, who takes to the bottle. We see Kay kissing Arlen and within ten seconds of his departure she is smooching another aerialist, David Newell. Bareback equestrienne Clara Bow worships Arlen. When he passes out drunk in his dressing room, she makes herself up like a clown and doubles for him on the high-wire! By the end of the film, Kay’s character gets tired of all the fuss and lets Clara Bow have Arlen. Kay’s own impression after the preview of Dangerous Curves was summed up in her diary with one word, “Ouch!” But, the film was good exposure for Kay, who would repeat a similar role in her next Mendes-directed film, Illusion.
Writer Dick Mook dropped in on the set of Dangerous Curves and found Kay offering Arlen her therapeutic touch. “I walked on to the set one afternoon to see Arlen. He was lying on a bench complaining of a backache and the dignified Miss Francis in black tights…was astraddle him, vigorously massaging the aching portion of his anatomy!” Mook later reported that Kay became fast friends with Arlen and his actress-wife Jobyna Ralston. A great deal of Kay’s spare time that first year was spent with the Arlens. The couple was down-to-earth and spoke Kay’s language. Kay’s diary mentions taking along Katty to the Arlens’ for enjoyable days canoeing and swimming in the lake. Kay was also mixing with other Broadway transplants to Hollywood such as Ruth Chatterton, Basil Rathbone, and a now amorous Walter Huston. Kay preferred keeping Walter, whom she adored, at a friendly distance. When Kay invited him over for dinner, he proceeded to get “too drunk to get home.” Kay wrote that Huston “slept between Katty (Kay’s girlfriend from school days who was in love with Kay and sometimes had her way with her) and me. Good old Walter.” Soon afterwards, Kay went over to Huston’s for drinks and he was persistent. “Kissed him like a damn fool,” she moaned. “That is the last person I want to have an affair with—not because he isn’t sweet, but—not that way! Thank God.”
Kay Francis I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten by Scott O’Brien